I’ve always felt that the most important requirement for having a good story is having an engaging cast of characters. Of course, having a good protagonist is important, as you want a character that the reader is going to find interesting, and want to follow. However, naturally, it’s very rare for the protagonist to be the only character in the story. I’ll need to design a cast of characters.
My larger projects contain a cast of characters that typically includes the protagonist, a deuteragonist, a rival to the protagonist, a love interest for the protagonist, a comic relief character, a foil for the protagonist (or a character who’s very much unlike him, to provide contrast) an antagonist, and several other characters who are associated with the antagonist. Of course, in some stories, I may combine several of these roles into a single character; I did this a lot in “The Cromm Conspiracy”. Of course, all these roles are not necessary. Whether they’re needed largely depends on the story, but I do find myself including these types of characters in most of my bigger works.
Often, I find myself designing a large cast of characters before I’ve fully straightened out what role they play in the story. Many times, a partial cast of characters is one of the first things I create once I have a basic story premise down. As characters are so important for the story, I find that designing the characters is a very important step in the planning process, and can definitely help to fill in details.
Other characters will get designed closer to when I actually start writing, but sometimes, I have to spontaneously create new ones as I write, if I need somebody for a role that no existing character can fill. However, I usually try to anticipate when I need a new character, so I have some time to think about them first, straighten out the details, and possibly even add a mention to them prior to when I use them.
However, when I design a large number of characters in advance, I have to make it clear to myself that the fact that they will be the main cast, or even in the cast at all, is not set in stone. How much I use them ultimately depends on what direction I ultimately take the story. I also do not promise they will all be in the story, though to date, I have not cut a character from my initial plan – though some have had the size of their roles severely downgraded.
I kind of feel like the size of a character’s role is something that decides itself as I write the story. When I’m actually in the middle of the writing, I may find I need a particular character more or less than I had originally anticipated.
Though I often plan the relationships between characters, and how I intend to develop them in advance, I find that it often develops itself as I write the story. This is especially true with romantic relationships – I can’t really see the chemistry between the characters until I’ve actually written several conversations between them.
In most of my short stories (except ones that are part of a series, of course), I focus very strongly on one protagonist, and only add what other characters are needed for the story. However, with a short story, there is less room for subplots, complex character development, and the like, so too many additional characters generally aren’t needed.
I find it’s quite effective to write out details about your characters, even minor ones, that go beyond what details are needed for the story. Even if the character has a very minor role, planning some personal details about them can help them seem less like a simple plot device. Such details can then be mentioned, or hinted at in the story, and can help make the character more interesting.
On several websites, I’ve seen character design sheets for download, which ask several questions about a character, their demographics, physical appearance, state of mind, strengths and weaknesses, job, hobbies, religious views, favorite TV shows/movies/video games/etc., and more. Even if the character is never seen watching TV, or the story he’s in does not contain any mention of religion, considering these details can still help to shape the character’s personality.
I do not have any such sheets I can legally redistribute, but I am planning to make one of my own, and will likely post it when I have done so. But for now, I have to go check on something.